For several reasons, this is a very tricky review to write. The central conundrum is that I genuinely like Terry Gilliam and admire his individualistic and at times daring approach to film-making, so I can be very forgiving of his faults - not really the best frame of mind for a reviewer, rather too biased. I'm worried that this has clouded my judgement somewhat, and that in fact Tideland is even worse than I currently believe it to be. Perhaps in millennia to come, when this review is subject to study by future scientists wondering what the 20th Century was all about, they will realise that sometimes good people do bad things, and that most of the time that's ok as long as they are genuinely sorry. They will then discover that Gilliam is certainly not sorry for this monstrous lump of shit and they will rightly bracket him in with Pinochet and Idi Amin (i.e. third tier evil, Michael Bay is tier one of course, just above Hitler).
Tideland is about a little girl called Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland) and how she copes with the terrible life she leads. Her Father Noah (Jeff Bridges) is a junkie, and she is responsible for cooking up his fix and ensuring he doesn't come to harm when he's on one of his "little vacations". Her Father's current girlfriend, only known as Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly) is archetypal white trash, and it's in these opening minutes when the gruesome family live their awful life that the film actually works. There are adult characters for Jeliza-Rose to react to, and they can react to her. There is a sense that something might happen that is interesting and probably dark, but there is humour too from Bridges and Tilly to ease the suffering - dark and sad things always seem darker and sadder when humour is employed as their direct neighbour, of course.
Gilliam is essentially hamstrung from making a decent film from this point onwards, because Mitch Cullin, author of the book this film is based on, decided to kill off not just Queen Gunhilda but Noah too. Oh dear. Now Jeliza-Rose has to cope with an even worse life, marooned in a huge swathe of American farmland in a dilapidated old house, with only her annoying doll's head collection for company. This is where the patented Gilliam "World O' Whimsy" kicks in, and we're meant to be seduced by her amazing creativity and imagination. Well, nicking a load of stuff from Alice in Wonderland isn't amazing, and having a girl talk to her dolls is as far from creative as you can get - they all frigging well do that, and it's just as boring in real life.
She holds dull conversations with all manner of imaginary things like an oh-so-quirky talking squirrel, and above all she doesn't believe that her Father is dead, leaving him to fester in his easy-chair. So the story is now headless and pointless. For a massive chunk of this film we have literally nothing happening at all. Jeliza wanders around, she plays the sorts of games that children play when alone and talks to her Father's corpse. Here's a quick hint for anyone wanting to make a film about kids - they are boring. Very boring. Certainly there is no fun to be had in watching a good thirty minutes of conversations between a girl and her dolls. This is actually so excruciatingly boring that when we finally get another couple of adult characters along it's like the second coming. Hallelujah! Grown-ups!
Sadly, things get even more annoying with the introduction of one of the worst and most talent less performances I've seen in a long time. Gilliam reportedly cast Brendan Fletcher as the child-minded twenty-year-old Dickens without even meeting him. In other words, he just thought he looked the part. And look it he does. Big goofy face and generally unpleasant, with fake hick teeth and a strange gait. He is a bad actor, and in Tideland he puts in one of those teeth-grindingly awful performances that will hopefully prevent him getting further work. His "O Brother Where Art Thou" Southern drawl and Rain Man shuffling are just not the sort of thing you want to hang a film on, and Dickens (God even the names annoy me) is central to this film because of the extremely creepy relationship he strikes up with Jeliza-Rose.
Now this, this right here, is what we call fucking freaky. Dickens and Jeliza-Rose fall in love. That's right, a twenty year old man and a ten year old girl. Weird, right? Wait, they practice kissing as well. And then Jeliza-Rose starts begging Dickens to show her his "secret". Well, it doesn't quite turn out how you think, but it's not a pleasant journey.
This film is meant to be dark and also heart-breaking. None of the characters has lived a life free from abuse, and a child in such a situation should of course be a tragic figure. Instead I found the whole affair incredibly boring and amazingly irritating. Everything in Eliza’s world has a stupid whimsical name which is repeated endlessly in a badly over-egged Southern drawl. There is no humour in this film either (well, one guy in the cinema I was in found some things funny but no-one else did) which is very unlike Gilliam, and the overall effect is of a horrible pet project that only he and some whimsy-loving morons can enjoy. Avoid this film.